I was kind of bummed but not exactly surprised when some of the more prominent feminist sites didn't acknowledge the death of actress/cop/dental hygenist/exotic dancer/model Tura Satana last February. Bummed because Satana's history -- living in an internment camp, learning martial arts and tracking down her rapists, becoming the leader of a gang, modeling for Harold Lloyd and then working as an actress on his recommendation -- should be worthy of merit. Not surprised because feminism and sex work has an uneasy history, and I have to admit I'm not always sure who's right in this debate.
Ever since I was 11 I loved comic books because I loved the idea of superheroines. Yet I very early on told myself to accept that the heavy and unequal sexualization of female heroes - and yes, they are unequal no matter how much you like looking at Dick Grayson's butt - was part of the package. Is a woman kicking ass rendered moot if she does it in a low cut top? Can true empowerment really be reached if women remain sex objects first and foremost?
Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is not a comic, but it shares many traits with comics, especially the comics of the Silver Age. Fight scenes abound in the story. Characters fight with judo chops and test their strength against racecars. Women are dressed in skintight clothing and have big breasts. The characters use slang and the same quippy style of talking that I remember from comics written by Stan Lee. Its director, Russ Meyer, also reminds me more than a little of comic books' preeminent showman, even if their intended audience is much different.
NSFW, some offensive language
It's this sort of high cartoonishness that, as Roger Ebert says in the above documentary, sort of mitigates any offensiveness one might take from the movie. Can one really take a movie seriously if it has lines like "The point is of no return, and you've reached it!" For those who haven't seen the film, the plot centers around three go-go dancers who like to race fast cars. A man joins their drag race and for reasons that aren't entirely clear, the main girl, Varla (Satana) kills him and kidnaps his girlfriend. Later the girls run into a misogynist old man and plan to steal his money, but it doesn't quite work out as they planned.
Is this movie tailor-made for the male gaze? Absolutely. Yet the movie doesn't have a great opinion of the men doing the gazing. Watch the opening scene below. After the hilarious spoken word intro (my absolute favorite part of the movie), the movie cuts to our three ... um, main characters ... dancing in glittery bikinis for men. Yet the women are filmed from below, a shot often used for powerful figures (see: Citizen Kane) while the men are filmed from above, visually cueing us to the fact that they are weaker despite the creepy shadows.
The men they meet later in the story don't get much better: the misogynist old man, the racecar driver and even the only male character in the story who could be a hero are unattractive and schlubby. The one attractive male in the movie is mentally slow, like a darker version of Rocky Horror from The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Obvious abelist issues aside, it's clear who are the more powerful figures here. Laughing the way they do, Varla, Rosie (Haji) and Billie (Lori Williams) remind me more than a little of mythical witches, with their cars standing in for their brooms.
Yes, these women are villainesses. Did that schlub deserve to get killed? No. But since when do the teenagers in a slasher film deserve to get killed for having sex? As spectators, we enjoy these women the same way we enjoy Disney characters like Maleficent. They may be bad, but they're fun to watch as they're bad. And anyway, the old man, who has nefarious plans for their kidnap victim, is much worse.
[SPOILER] On a similar note, it also helps that for the most part it isn't the schlubby men who take the women down. "The Vegetable" takes down Rosie, but that death feels as senseless as he is, and not as a justified revenge you can cheer over. Varla kills Billie, and Varla herself is taken out not by the "hero" of the story but the female victim who spends most of the movie crying and whimpering in a bathing suit, proving that even at the end the weakest woman is still stronger than the strongest man.[SPOILER]
So, is Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! exploitative? I think so. Is it feminist? I think so, too. It's feminist enough to give props to Tura Satana, at least. Those are some nice, big judo chops.